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California Condors Reestablishing Their Range Across the Golden State

The endangered species still faces major threat from lead poisoning, but wildlife managers are hopeful about recovery prospects

Condors are the iconic bird of the west, the Thunderbird of Native Americans. North America’s largest flying land birds, their ten-foot wingspan allows them to soar over a wide range, from the coast to the Sierras.

photo of California CondorPhoto courtesy of San Diego ZooCalifornia condors were headed for extincition in the 1960s, but their numbers have rebounded following a captive breeding and subsequent rewilding program.

They were headed for extinction in the 1960s, when they were listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act That listing, followed by a listing under California state law in the early 1970s, brought financial and scientific resources to bear, allowing researchers to identify the factors conspiring against them. These included hunting, theft of their eggs by egg collectors, poisoning due to feeding on cyanide-killed coyotes, and being electrocuted when they flew into power lines. Their wild habitat, and the carrion that they eat, were generally disappearing and what was left was degraded. Worst of all, lead ammunition left in gutpiles and the carcasses of coyotes, ground squirrels, and other wildlife shot by ranchers was poisoning them.

As their numbers dwindled, the US Fish and Wildlife Service set up a captive breeding program at the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park in an effort to save the species. By 1987, the 27 remaining wild birds had all been captured for the program. The critically endangered species still faces challenges to a full recovery, particularly from the ongoing use of lead ammunition by hunters, but wildlife managers say the breeding program and subsequent rewilding program have been a resounding success.

“If it weren’t for lead, condors would be close to having a sustaining population in the wild,” said Joe Burnett  senior wildlife biologist and condor program manager for Ventana Wildlife Society in Big Sur, one of several organizations that partner with the US Fish and Wildlife service on the condor recovery program. 

Since condor reintroductions began in 1992, the total population of California condors has grown to more than 450 birds, nearly 300 of which are now living in the wild. Condors have reestablished their range through parts of California, Arizona, and Baja California. In California, where the majority of condors have been reintroduced,  three small California flocks that were considered …more

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Hawai’i's Kilauea Eruption Has Wiped Out Rare Sites and Entire Ecosystems

As the island mourns a tragedy, it also accepts the brutal cycle of nature

In Puna, the area of Hawai'i island that’s been hardest hit by the Kilauea volcano eruption, those who lived nearest to the lava flows watched the forest around their homes begin to die first. They said the fruit trees, flowers and ferns began turning brown, languishing in the noxious, sulfur-dioxide-filled air. Then the lava came. Now large swaths of formerly verdant forest have been replaced by rough and barren volcanic terrain.

photo of Hawai'i erruptionPhoto courtesy of NC Department of Public SafetySince the Kilauea volcano began errupting in early May, lava has destroyed hundreds of homes, as well as vibrant forests and entire coastal ecosystems.

Before the eruptions, that area was probably the best forest left in the state of Hawai'i,” said Patrick Hart, a biology professor at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo. “There were areas where the native Ohia forest extended right up to the ocean, and you just don’t see that in the rest of Hawai'i,” he said. Now it’s covered with 20 to 30 feet of lava.

On Hawai'i island, also known as the Big Island, lava from the weeks-long eruption of the Kilauea volcano has also paved over tide pools and coral gardens, boiled a 400-year-old lake until it evaporated and killed a number of sea creatures.

But to scientists, it’s just part of life on the state’s youngest island, where land is still being created as lava continuously reshapes the natural environment.

“From a human point of view, what’s happening is tragic,” said David Damby, a volcanologist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS). “But from the volcano’s point of view, that’s the job she does: to build new land and change the landscape. That’s the way the earth works.”

The humid, rainy forests in Puna were an important habitat for native Hawaiian trees, birds, and insects, Hart said. Chartreuse-colored ‘amakihis and bright red ‘apapanes rested on trees, Hawai'ian hawks soared through the air, and dragonflies, butterflies, and crickets all made the forest their home.

It will likely take at least 100 years for the decimated tracts of lava-covered forest to begin again — first with lichen, then with native ferns and Ohia trees that have adapted to grow on lava. In 150 years, Hart said, the land could begin to resemble a forest like the one that used to be there. It’s a process that has happened many times before …more

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Watching Over Washington’s Whistle Pig

Citizen scientists are bolstering our understanding of the Olympic Peninsula's endemic marmot

In July 1997, in the high country of Olympic National Park in Washington State, Nina Pitts and Steve Zenovic watched two plump, furry marmots sliding down a snowfield.

“They slid fast on their bellies down the steep slope,” recalls Pitts. “When they got to the bottom, they scrambled up to do it again. We rolled a snowball or two down to them, and they chased those too.”

photo of Olympic marmotphoto by Kelsie Donleycott Roughly 90 percent of Olympic marmot habitat lies within Olympic National Park. Citizen scientists have observed that marmot populations are disappearing from the southern reaches of the park. 

Pitts, a library supervisor at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, WA, and Zenovic, her husband and an engineer, have been hiking and backpacking in the national park since 1976. They have appreciated seeing the marmots over the years. “They have often provided us with a welcome distraction from hiking up steep switchbacks,” she says. “In later years, when we didn’t see their burrows where we’d seen them before, we wondered where the animals had gone.”

Since 2010, the couple has joined more than 80 other volunteers each summer to participate in a marmot citizen-science monitoring program. The goal is to document the presence of marmots in select areas throughout the species’ range, 90 percent of which is in the national park with the remainder in the surrounding national forest. For six to eight months each year, Olympic marmots, large, burrowing members of the squirrel family with small ears and big, stubby muzzles, go into a state of deep hibernation. During this time, each animal’s body temperature and heart rate drop so that it can conserve energy during the seasons when food is unavailable. In the spring, the animals emerge from their winter sleep. As the snow melts and the lupine and glacier lilies begin to bloom, the marmots awake and begin to leave their burrows. They are easily visible, feeding in the alpine meadows of the Olympic Mountains, breathtaking landscapes that people love to visit. Citizen scientists like Pitts and Zenovic are ready each year when the marmots emerge, eager to connect more deeply with the park and its residents, and to also give back in the process.

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In 2009, one year before the monitoring program began, the Olympic marmot, affectionately known as the “whistle pig” for its high-pitched alarm calls, was designated Washington’s State endemic mammal. The proposal for this distinction came from elementary school …more

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30 Years Ago Global Warming Became Front-Page News

Back then, before massive a disinformation campaign by corporate interests, both Democrats and Republicans took the issue seriously

June 23, 1988 marked the date on which climate change became a national issue. In landmark testimony before the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Dr. James Hansen, then director of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies, stated that “Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause-and-effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming … In my opinion, the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”

photo of protestPhoto by Johnny SilvercloudGlobal warming gained mainstream attention in 1988. But a deliberate misinformation campaign to redirect the public discussion on climate change following James Hansen's testimony in front of Congress has stalled progress on the global issue.

Hansen’s testimony made clear the threats posed by climate change and attributed the phenomenon to human exploitation of carbon energy sources. Its impact was dramatic, capturing headlines in The New York Times and other major newspapers. As politicians, corporations and environmental organizations acknowledged and began to address this issue, climate change entered into the political arena in a largely nonpartisan fashion.

Yet despite decades of public education on climate change and international negotiations to address it, progress continues to stall. Why?

One reason for the political inaction is the gaping divide in public opinion that resulted from a deliberate — and still controversial — misinformation campaign to redirect the public discussion on climate change in the years following Hansen’s testimony.

Just as predicted

Four years after Hansen testified to Congress, 165 nations signed an international treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. They committed themselves to reducing carbon emissions to avoid dangerous disruption of the Earth’s climate system, defined as limiting future temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius. The signatories have now held 25 annual UNFCCC conferences dedicated to developing goals, timetables and methods for mitigating climate change, the most consequential of which are encompassed in the Paris Agreement of 2015.

But as of today, not one single major northern industrial country has fulfilled its commitments under the Paris treaty, and the nonprofit Climate Action Tracker has rated the United States’ plan to achieve the Paris goals critically insufficient.

There have been more than 600 congressional hearings on climate change, according to my calculations, and numerous attempts to pass binding limits on carbon emissions. Despite those efforts, the United States has yet to take meaningful action on the …more

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Unseen Plastics in Our Water

How citizen science informed a new study that revealed the extent of microplastic and microfiber pollution in marine ecosystems

The movement to stop plastic from polluting our environment has picked up incredible momentum in recent months. The UN has declared the entire year dedicated to reducing ocean plastic pollution, National Geographic has launched a multi-year Planet or Plastic? campaign, the EU may ban single-use plastics, and California has several pieces of legislation in the works to stop pollution from plastic straws, bottle caps, and even to reduce ocean pollution from plastic microfibers shed from clothing in the wash.

photo of woman with plastic pollutionphoto by Dianna Cohen Marine research scientist Abby Barrows led a citizen science study of coastal and open ocean microplastic pollution through which volunteers collected more than 1,300 water samples across the world.

Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC), a project of Earth Island Institute, has been at the forefront of this movement since 2009. Now, with more than 700 organizations and businesses in 60+ countries in the coalition, PPC uses digital organizing to further the goal of working toward a world free of plastic pollution. Because grassroots efforts are at the heart of the work the PPC does, it often supports citizen science initiatives that aim to map plastic pollution, publish original research, and push legislation to protect our planet.

In the past six months, PPC has been highlighting the work of coalition members who are using citizen science. This includes groups that are charting litter all over the world via an app called Litterati; youth in the Bahamas who dissect fish, learn about microplastics, and turn that knowledge into action by working with local government; and folks who are gathering water samples from all over the world to create a multi-year global study on microplastics in the world’s oceans.

The last initiative, involving global water samples, could not have been possible without citizen science. Abby Barrows, a PPC scientific advisor and marine research scientist with Adventure Scientists, a group that leverages the skills of the outdoor adventure community to gather data on the environment, and College of the Atlantic, led the citizen-science study by collecting more than 1,300 water samples sent by individual volunteers from all over the world and processing them in her lab in Maine.

Barrows collected and studied the 1-liter water samples and published her findings in the journal ScienceDirect this month.

The results of the study, which is based the most extensive global coastal and open ocean grab sampling effort to date, are sobering. The presence …more

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Hawai’i First US State to Ban Use of Neurotoxic Pesticide Chlorpyrifos

As the EPA refuses to take action on a known public health hazard, the island state shows the way forward

Yesterday, Hawai'i Governor David Ige signed into law Senate Bill 3095 banning all uses of chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxic pesticide that US Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt has refused to prohibit despite the EPA’s own pronouncement that the pesticide poses an unacceptable risk to humans.

photo of agriculture hawaiiPhoto by moonjazz / Flickr Following years of grassroots organizing by activists, Hawai'i Governor David Ige signed a law yesterday banning the use of the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyifos across the state. The ban takes effect next year.

This new law is the culmination of nearly six years of grassroots organizing by rural communities in Hawai’i that face daily pesticide exposure.

Chlorpyrifos is part of a class of chemicals, known as organophosphates, that were developed before World War II as a nerve gas that could halt neurotransmissions in a soldier’s brain. Chlorpyrifos kills bugs by disrupting their brain functions in a similar way.

Several studies have shown that exposure to the pesticide, which can make its way into food, air, and drinking water supplies, can affect humans, especially children who can suffer from impaired cognitive abilities and reduced IQ after chronic exposures. Chlorpyrifos was banned for indoor use in 2001 due to its impacts on children’s developing brains, but it continues to be the most heavily used insecticide in the US with 4 to 8 million pounds applied annually.

On a pounds-per-acre basis, the heaviest applications of chlorpyrifos in the US has been on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where several large agribusiness have been conducting open-air experiments on genetically modified seeds. (Read “The Ghost in the GMO Machine.”)

“This law is our message to the EPA and to the chemical companies that we will no longer tolerate being ground zero for the testing of toxic pesticides that are damaging our children’s health and poisoning our environment,” Gary Hooser, former Majority Leader of the Hawai'i Senate and founder of the Hawai'i Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA), said in a statement yesterday after Ige signed the bill.

HAPA was a part of a coalition of local residents, teachers, scientists, health professionals, and advocates, including Hawai'i Center for Food Safety, Hawai‘i SEED, and Pesticide Action Network, that worked for years to push forward the legislation.

Hooser, who lives on Kauai, guided the “Protect our Keiki” coalition of diverse residents from across the islands through the complex political process that resulted in the …more

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Basking on the Brink

An "unholy" river in India may be the last, best hope for one of the world's largest and most imperiled crocodilians

Dead gharials began washing up on the banks of India’s Chambal River in December 2007. Over the following weeks, the body count grew. By mid-January, the dead reptiles — some the length of two tall men, lined up end to end — numbered in the dozens. By March, more than 110 of the skinny-snouted creatures had been found dead, most along a 30-kilometer (18-mile) stretch of river.

photo of a gharialsphoto Dhritiman Mukherjee Hatchling gharials from multiple females congregate near the dominant male, likely their father, on the territory where they hatched.

At the time, there were thought to be just 200 to 250 breeding-age gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) left in the world. And while only a dozen or so of the victims had reached reproductive age, many were close. A loss of more than 100 of them represented a major blow for a population already in crisis. Having been classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered even before the die-off began, the species was clearly in trouble — including here on the Chambal, its last remaining stronghold.

Among the international team of veterinarians and crocodile experts that convened to investigate was Jeffrey Lang, a conservation biologist previously at the University of North Dakota. When Lang traveled to India that March, he was concerned about the die-off. But he was also driven by what he saw as a window of opportunity, opened by the crisis, to take a closer look at an understudied species. What he found were questions, loads of them — not just about what was killing gharials, but about how the animals lived in the first place.

“We opened a Pandora’s box. There was all this stuff we didn’t know,” says Lang, now a scientific advisor for the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and the Gharial Conservation Alliance. To help fill the many knowledge gaps surrounding these imperiled creatures, Lang — along with conservationist Rom Whitaker and croc researcher Dhruvajyoti Basu — launched a research project on the Chambal that would reveal many new details about basic gharial natural history and ecology, from their movements and breeding behaviors to the many threats they face over the course of their lives.

Even as the mystery lingered over the 2008 die-off, study results began to provide clues about how best to protect the gharial — both from the potential for similar catastrophes and from the growing pressure of development that threatens the species’ very existence.

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